Some years ago I had a kindergartner in my class named Vickie who, for weeks, tested me daily. Our school building was old, without the modern convenience of a water fountain in the classroom, so we had to go outside our door for a drink. The metal door sill was the designated dividing line between “inside” and “outside” the classroom. I explained to the class that I needed to know where all kindergartners were, to be sure that they were safe. The children had to ask me for permission to go “outside”—which, by the way, was always granted.
Vickie was a bright, sturdy child who seemed unsure, or even distrustful, of adults. Her only sibling, a baby brother, was receiving great amounts of attention at home. Vickie appeared to be feeling the effects of being displaced from her “only-child” status. She had a strong need to know just how trustworthy I was and she chose the inside/outside rule as a means to test me.
Several times each day, during free choice periods, Vickie would go to the classroom door and stand with her toes a bit over the inside/outside line—just barely breaking the rule. Searching the room to locate me, she would wait patiently until I noticed. When I saw her I would say something like, “Vickie, your toes are over the line. Back up just a bit.” She would grin and take a step back into the room and I would say, “There you go. Thanks,” smile at her, and go about my business. I always reacted with good humor, never with impatience or irritation.
This routine went on for weeks. It became more and more playful, each of us enjoying the fun. Vickie liked teasing me, and I appreciated her spunk, perseverance, and unwillingness to take the world at face value without testing it for herself. She needed to know if I really meant what I said. She appeared to be thinking, “Is this teacher trustworthy? Can she be relied upon to tell the truth? Is she dependable and strong?” Vickie needed to know if I truly meant to enforce the inside/outside rule no matter how often it was tested—and I did. If Vickie could trust me in enforcing this small rule, maybe she could trust me in other matters, such as the affection I showed for the children in the class.
Gradually Vickie came to believe me and turned her attention and energies to other interesting activities in the classroom. Once she had resolved her questions about whether I was trustworthy, she never challenged or defied me again. Vickie appeared confident and relaxed, smiled more often, and complained less. She seemed to feel better about herself and devoted her time to other pursuits typical of a five-year-old child.
Elements of Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is the value each one of us places on ourselves. When young children are treated with respect, love, and firm guidance, including consistently applied, reasonable rules, they learn that they are valuable human beings and develop high levels of self-esteem. Children who are treated with disrespect and hostility, or are neglected, learn that they are worth little to others and consequently have low levels of self-esteem.
Marion (1995) defines three elements of self-esteem as worth, control, and competence. Worth means that a child likes and values him or herself and feels important to others. Vickie learned that she was important to me because I always paid attention to her and took the time to respond to her infractions of the rule.
A child who feels in control believes that he or she is not simply at the mercy of other people and external forces, but has the power to affect his or her own life. When adults have appropriate behavioral expectations of children, and help them to achieve these behavioral goals, internal control gradually develops. As Vickie came to accept the rule, she internalized it and no longer needed me to be the controlling agent. She had control of herself.
Competent children see themselves as successful in school, in social relationships, and in physical tasks. They have an “I can do it” attitude. After testing me persistently, Vickie eventually learned that she was capable of following the rules at school.
Erik Erikson’s (1950) theory of psycho-social development suggests that the first crisis an infant must resolve is whether or not to trust. Infants who do not learn to trust parents and other caregivers remain watchful and self-protective. When adults fail to demonstrate that they will protect and take care of children, the children dare not relax or relinquish the task of protecting themselves. Predictable rules in the home, child care center, and classroom help children learn that the world is trustworthy (Trawick-Smith, 1994) and that they are valuable to parents, care providers, and teachers who spend time and effort helping them follow those rules. Feeling valuable leads to positive self-esteem.
Learning to trust takes some children a long time. The adult’s role is to remain calm and patient and follow through with predictable responses and expectations. If a consequence to a behavior has been established, it must be enacted each time the behavior occurs (Kostelnik, et al., 1993). Consistency over time shows children that adults are reliable, even though they occasionally may have lapses into ill temper, or may neglect to follow through on a promise. When adults discuss their failures with children, children learn that mom, dad, the caregiver, and teacher are human—despite getting angry or forgetting once in a while.
In her book Being There: The Benefits of a Stay-at-Home Parent, Isabelle Fox, Ph.D., cites many studies regarding the benefits of consistent care for young children. One of these studies, published by the Carnegie Corporation in 1994 (Starting Point: Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children), states that child care by a few “dependable adults” provides a “secure base from which the infant can explore the larger, social, and physical world.” The Carnegie report continues by saying that, “for healthy development, infants and toddlers need a continuing relationship with a few caring people, beginning with their parents and later including other child care providers. If this contact is substantial and consistent, young children can form trusting attachments that are needed for healthy development throughout life.”
If, on the other hand, caregivers come and go with some frequency, as is common in many child care settings, young children will be less likely to form trusting relationships with adults. The long-term implication of this, states Fox, is “increased risk for the development of problems that increasingly plague our society.” Fox includes within these problems:
· the inability to learn a moral code and obey our laws;
· the inability to successfully learn from teachers and traverse our educational system;
· the inability to resist the temptations of drugs, alcohol, and substance abuse;
· the inability to form and sustain intimate relations and consequent problems in getting and staying married;
· and increased susceptibility to serious mental illness such as depression.
The Needs of Young Children
In Maslow’s (1970) hierarchy of needs, the most fundamental needs are physiological, or food and shelter requirements. Clearly, Vickie’s physiological needs were being met. She was well-dressed and clean and appeared well-fed and healthy. Her family lived in a nice house. Maslow’s second level is the need for safety—physical as well as psychological and emotional. Here, Vickie seemed to be struggling. The kindergarten environment was new to her and Vickie was unsure of the safety or protection that I would provide. She needed to test my intentions over and over until she was more comfortable. A child who feels safe at school feels protected and valuable to her teacher. Vickie’s self-esteem was improved when she felt she was worthwhile in my eyes.
Maslow believed that each level of need had to be substantially met before an individual could move on to the next level. After people had their physiological and safety needs met, Maslow believed that they moved on to attempt to meet their need for love and belonging. Vickie had few friends at school during the time she was testing me. She was not ready to move up the “need hierarchy” to satisfy her need for love and belonging until she was sure of her teacher.
Too often, just when children become accustomed to a teacher at the child care center, the teacher moves on to another job. Child care centers may expect children to adapt to several different adults a day. It is normal for children to test each of these adults to some degree. Some, like Vickie, test for long periods of time. Others will do less obvious things and watch an unfamiliar adult carefully to decide whether or not he or she is trustworthy.
Time and Effort
Children who test us again and again can be exhausting to live or work with. We reach a point of frustration and begin to think, “I’ve said that over and over. Why won’t he believe me?!” We may even be short-tempered with children who cannot accept what we say. We may utter things like, “Did you hear me? I said no!” or “How many times do I have to say it?!” It is important to remember that young children are experiential learners. To young children, hearing is not necessarily believing. Simply telling children something, no matter how clear it may seem to you, may not make the children believe or understand it. Young children need explanations and practice (Marion, 1995).
We must be patient and realize that children and adults perceive time differently. Some children need reminders over long periods of time to learn that the teacher really means what he or she says. Other children require less time. What adults can learn in one experience may take children many experiences. Children often forget words and ideas that have little meaning to them. Just because the teacher thinks a rule, such as walking in the classroom, is important and logical, it does not necessarily follow that the children will feel the rule is important.
It is best to have as few rules as feasible to keep your classroom orderly and safe. Make sure that rules are reasonable and understood by the children. You then need to invest the time to enforce the rules, and their consequences, every time they are broken (Daniel, J., 1995; Mendler, 1996). It is also important to tell children when they are doing a good job of obeying rules. This will encourage the children to continue behaving appropriately (Wittmer & Honig, 1994). As adults consistently apply rules, children internalize them and learn self-control (Isenberg & Jalongo, 1993; Marion, 1995).
Responding to Broken Rules
Mr. Thompson’s preschool student, Charlie, continually ignored the rule about using words instead of hitting others when he was angry. Charlie’s behavior often disrupted the classroom and hurt other children. Physical aggression must not be ignored or it may escalate and result in injury to another child (Wittmer & Honig, 1994). Fortunately, every time Charlie hits, Mr. Thompson acts immediately and says, “Charlie, you hit Sam. Our rule is to use words, not fists. I am worried that you might hurt Sam. Tell him what you want and why you are angry.”
There are three important elements in Mr. Thompson’s response. The first element is the statement regarding which specific behavior is the problem (i.e., “Charlie, you hit Sam”). Don’t assume that the child knows which of his behaviors are inappropriate. The second element is the reason for the rule (i.e., “I am worried that you might hurt Sam”). Mr. Thompson created and enforces the “use words—don’t hit” rule to prevent children from hurting each other. The third element is teaching Charlie an alternative, appropriate behavior (i.e., “Tell him what you want and why you are angry”). When our only response is to say, “stop it,” we assume the child can think of an appropriate replacement behavior. Most young children have difficulty doing this. We must teach them more appropriate behaviors through direct instruction, such as giving them choices.
If Charlie still does not comply, Mr. Thompson must implement the consequences that have been clearly communicated to the children. He must be willing to stop everything, if necessary, confront Charlie, and follow through. Perhaps the consequence is to work at a table alone, or leave the activity and find another (Kostelnik, et al., 1993). This is important not only to Charlie, but also to other children, who learn that Mr. Thompson is willing to take immediate action to ensure that rules are obeyed.
It may seem easier to give in to a resistant or complaining child than to spend the time and energy it takes to follow through. Mr. Thompson might begin to think, “Oh, well, Sam isn’t hurt. I’m tired of telling Charlie the same thing over and over. It doesn’t do any good anyway.” If Mr. Thompson does this, however, Charlie may learn that the rule is flexible and doesn’t always apply. That is a confusing message to a young child.
When adults let the “Charlies” in their care get away with misbehavior and do not enforce rules, several things may occur. First, Charlie may continue to rely on the easy way out of a problem and use his fists. Second, Charlie may reason that if Mr. Thompson does not mean what he says about enforcing the “no hitting” rule, he may not mean other things he says, either. When Mr. Thompson tells Charlie he has done well, Charlie may not believe him or may doubt his sincerity. This can set up a pattern of dishonest or inauthentic interaction and communication between adults and children. Third, Charlie may interpret Mr. Thompson’s response as a lack of confidence in Charlie’s ability to follow the rule, or even a lack of interest in Charlie himself. Consequently, Charlie’s self-esteem may suffer. Permissive teachers, who may be warm and affectionate, but whose rules and expectations fluctuate, tend to produce children with low levels of independence and less internal control of their behavior (Kostelnik & Stein, 1990). Clearly communicated rules, gently but firmly enforced, help children feel secure.
Modeling Appropriate Behaviors
Children’s behaviors often reflect the way they are treated by others (Marion, 1995; Mendler, 1996; Wittmer & Honig, 1994). According to Bandura (1986), our environment presents us with a variety of behaviors from which we select those we will copy. Several things help determine which behaviors a child selects to imitate. These include the child’s level of cognitive development, whether the child is physically able to perform the behavior (Marion, 1995), and the child’s relationship with the adult he or she is imitating. Children may model abusive, antisocial behaviors they see around them (Kosnik, 1993). However, adults who are friendly and supportive are more likely to be chosen as models by young children (Kostelnik, et al., 1993).
Charlie may have been imitating behaviors seen at home or on television. If parents or teachers yell at preschoolers and then expect the children to use quiet voices, children become confused. If an adult uses physical punishment, such as spanking a child for hitting another child, the adult’s behavior says one thing while his or her words say another. If children are given loving, nurturing care, and are treated with respect and genuine concern for their welfare, they are likely to feel secure, have high levels of self-esteem, and learn to treat others in the same way. If, on the other hand, children feel neglected, mistreated, lied to, disrespected, or ignored, they can become self-protective and defensive. Early childhood professionals must form supportive relationships with children and act in consistently positive ways so that children are presented with appropriate models of behavior to imitate.
Following through with rules and expectations is worth the time and effort it takes because it helps children develop positive self-esteem. If children’s needs for trusting others and feeling safe are met, children feel confident and good about themselves. When adults follow through on rules and behavioral expectations, they show children that they are valued and help children develop internal control. By following through we create positive relationships with children and eventually spend less time enforcing rules and expectations and more time enjoying our time with them!
Sue Grossman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of early childhood teacher education at Eastern Michigan University.
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